BIS Reads: Leaf by Niggle

I am always amazed by the economy of a good short story. Authors like Flannery O’Connor, for example, teach us more about grace and the human condition in a mere couple of pages than some theologians manage in a lifetime of work.

I don’t normally consider Tolkien, however, to be particularly conservative when it comes to word count. But I recently re-read his short story, “Leaf by Niggle,” and I was struck for the first time by the succinctness and compactness of Tolkien’s writing. He beautifully sums up some of the most fundamental truths of our Faith in a simple little story about a man called Niggle. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, I highly recommend it.

Our Desire to Create

The story starts by introducing us to an ordinary painter, Niggle, who has a journey coming up but has not yet prepared for it. He’s trying to finish his painting, and he longs to dedicate his time to his art, in particular, to his painting of a certain Tree.

You might find some commentary suggesting that Niggle’s art is completely self-indulgent, but assuming Tolkien’s writing was at least somewhat autobiographical, I don’t think that really was his intention. I don’t think Tolkien would have viewed his creation of Middle Earth as a selfish endeavor, just as I don’t think any one of us should feel guilty about taking time to pursue our creative passions.

The desire to make something, to leave something behind, is a natural part of being human. If we are made in the image and likeness of God, who is Creator, then our own small creations are a reflection of Him. Anytime we focus our attention on creating something, whether it be knitting a pair of baby booties or setting a table or composing a symphony or painting a masterpiece—no matter how simple or grandiose the outcome—we are seeking something beautiful. We are looking toward Heaven, and that is a good thing.

Our Need for Community

As we near the part of the story that we, as readers, might interpret as Niggle’s arrival to “Heaven,” we see that, at the gateway to Paradise, Niggle finds himself within his own painting. But not necessarily as he painted it. Rather, he is immersed in the perfection he was always seeking as an artist. His Tree was “finished.”

But then Niggle, amidst the goodness of his now-perfect picture, realizes something is missing. He needs his neighbor, Parish. In Niggle’s life, Parish is a constant source of interruption, frustration, and inconvenience. Quite frankly, he is annoying and self-absorbed. Time and again Niggle must put down his paintbrush to his assist his neighbor, even though the tasks are not always necessary or important. Parish is the very reason why Niggle cannot complete his painting.

Holiness in Reliance on Others

And yet, when they meet again in the afterlife, Parish and Niggle’s conversation leads us to the most profound truth. Even though they are surrounded by the beauty that Niggle spent his life striving for, it was not due to his own art that he arrived there. They owe their sanctification to each other, and to the Intercessor who interceded on their behalf. They needed one another, not the other’s strengths but rather their weaknesses, to give the opportunity to sacrifice, to do good deeds, to grow in virtue.

There’s nothing wrong with sitting down with our pen or picking up our guitar or returning to our paintbrush and finding joy in those moments of creation. Art, in as much as it seeks to capture a bit of Beauty and Truth does fulfill a part of us. But it’s incomplete. We are made to love, both as lover and beloved, so it requires someone else. Real happiness is only to be found in family and community life, through those who teach us to put the tools of our trade down, so we can pick up our crying child or the hand of our troubled sister. Those inconvenient, troublesome moments are where we will find true purpose, love and happiness.

And, it’s where we find our opportunity for holiness.

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Imperfect for Each Other

We don’t come together as families and communities so that we can be more efficient with our creation. None of us are “perfect for each other”; it’s the opposite. We are imperfect for each other. What would we know about St. Monica if not for Augustine’s failures? What would Story of a Soul be without the annoying sisters St. Therese encountered in the convent? When your baby is upset for no obvious reason, yet you pick her up anyway? Sanctification. When your friend calls on a busy evening, and you stop to talk her through a rough situation? Sanctification.

It can’t be done our own.

It’s easy to be grateful for the time we have to work, uninterrupted, on our “Leaf,” whatever that might be. And we should! It’s a gift to participate in the creative work of God. But we should be even more grateful for the opportunity to pause, to bear one another’s burdens. And, harder still, to be grateful for the times when we ourselves are burdensome to those around us, allowing others the chance at holiness. Because we all are, at some point. If we weren’t, how would we help each other get to Heaven?

Our creations are never going to be sufficient for our salvation, no matter how great or lasting they are. Our Faith is not simply creative, but rather incarnational. The Creator of the cosmos Himself paused and took the most inconvenient form: an unplanned pregnancy, a helpless infant, who would bear all our sins, burdens, and infirmities. And it’s in the messiness and inefficacies and annoyances of human interaction where we get to participate, albeit imperfectly and inadequately, in the work of salvation. That’s where we find our hope and our redemption.

Leaf by Niggle is Beautifully Human

Tolkien’s story of Niggle is ultimately one of optimism and reassurance. Like Niggle, most of us are pretty average. We aren’t Michelangelo or Mozart…or even Tolkien. It’s quite likely we won’t leave any masterpiece behind.

And even if we did, it would eventually turn to dust like Niggle’s earthly painting…like every other created thing. But no matter our wealth or status, whether our contributions are celebrated or overlooked, we all face interruptions and requests. We are all surrounded by needy people. We all have opportunities every day to make sacrifices for others. We all have a powerful intercessor, Our Mother, to intercede for us. We can all pray for the grace to say “yes” to our neighbor. Niggle’s finest hour was a simple act of service. It might be hard sometimes, but we can all do that.

The journey to salvation is open to us all.

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Cheryl Witty-Castillo is a mother, freelance writer, and director of the Writing and Language Center at St. Mary’s Seminary. You can find out more about her here.

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